The relationship between a power-hungry Broadway gossip columnist and a sycophantic press agent is not, as far as I know, one of the Basic Plots. Nor is the quasi-incestuous solicitude of a power-hungry Broadway gossip columnist for his half sister. Mind you, I do not insist that all musicals be derived from the Basic Plots. I have always been fond of one about a barber who slits his customers' throats and has the corpses baked into pies. But every musical raises the question: What is there here to sing about? In this case, I'm afraid, the answer is nothing. It grieves me to say so, because an extraordinarily talented group of people has collaborated to create and perform "Sweet Smell of Success."
To work, the show would have had to make the wave of evil it describes exhilarating. We would have to be so giddy riding it that we suspended moral judgment until it was over. But if, early on, the chorus sings, "Just give him dirt/ Make it hurt/ He gives your client a plug," the judgments are made for us. We're not allowed to tag along blithely. John Guare's book makes J. J. Hunsecker, the columnist based on Walter Winchell, and his toady, Sidney Falco, even uglier than they were in the 1957 film. Sweeney Todd at least has the justification of revenge. Nothing can justify J. J. and Sidney. They destroy everyone around them simply to savor their own power. They operate around the corner from Damon Runyon's Sister Sarah, but they are beyond the ministrations of the Save-A-Soul Mission, because they don't have any. Even such deeply appealing actors as John Lithgow and Brian D'Arcy James can't make us care about them. It was clever to cast Lithgow as Hunsecker, because the sweetness he radiates might temper our disgust at the character. (Full disclosure: He and I did radio drama together 30 years ago at WBAI.) I was afraid he might be too likable for J. J. I was wrong. Lithgow can fill the stage with charm, but when he blows up, he makes Hunsecker's ruthlessness visceral. His soft shoe at the end of the show is dazzling in the way it combines J. J.'s glib airiness with his manic drive. Similarly, D'Arcy James' tenor voice is irresistible and he delivers his impassioned songs with great fervor, but it is not enough to undercut the repugnant desperation that pushes Sidney Falco. Kelli O'Hara doesn't get enough material to make us understand J. J.'s hapless sister, but she sings beautifully. As her smarmy lover, Jack Noseworthy has an oddly seamy kind of handsomeness. He sings like a dream. Stacey Logan handles the role of Sidney's mistreated girlfriend with poignant world-weariness. There is no more intelligent lyricist around than Craig Carnelia, and his skills are evident. It would have been great to have Marvin Hamlisch's return to Broadway be more bracing. He has written a gorgeous song for Noseworthy, richly orchestrated by William Brohn (its piano accompaniment elegantly played by Ron Melrose). Perhaps the score would have worked better if the songs were more indirect, not so in-your-face. Bob Crowley's sets, though powerfully lit by Natasha Katz, don't really capture '50s New York. Nicholas Hytner's direction catches the dark energy of the show. But the question remains: Why did we need to lift this rock and see these creatures scurry - in song?
Black, black, black - "The Wizard of Oz," it is not, and we're not in Kansas anymore, or even Oklahoma. It's sleaze-time in the gossip-strewn streets of Gotham in the Age of Ike, J. Edgar Hoover and Walter Winchell.
It was a fascinating and brave idea to make a musical out of that classic 1957 film noir, "Sweet Smell of Success," where nothing is sweet and success has a distinctly nasty odor.
Yet the musical that opened last night at the Martin Beck is diamond-tough and in most ways just as brilliant. The two principal characters of "Sweet Smell" are a megalomaniacal gossip columnist of terrifying power, J.J. Hunsecker, and his jackal sidekick, a sycophantic press agent, Sidney Falco, who makes Shakespeare's Iago seem like a warm-hearted sissy.
The movie was based on a novella (that's a long short story with ambitions) by Ernest Lehman, who later wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets and interestingly is one of the producers of the current musical, as is one of the movie's producers, David Brown.
If you have a good idea, always recycle it. And it was a stunningly good idea, a melodrama loosely based on the life and times of Winchell, the feared, hated, even occasionally admired and legendary gossip columnist and sometime vaudevillian.
Directed with focused intensity by Alexander MacKendrick, the film had two great portrayals by Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis (in the performance of his career) as his Pygmalion-like whelp, Falco.
The new musicalization has an agate-smooth book by John Guare, evocatively colorful but less than truly memorable music by Marvin ("A Chorus Line") Hamlisch and lyrics that fit by Craig Carnelia.
What makes the musical a must-see for anyone interested in musical theater is partly the concept; then, Guare's pushy, pushing and damnably clever book; the immeasurably suave yet exciting staging by director Nicholas Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon - it's often difficult to see where one starts and the other ends; and the wondrous designs of Bob Crowley.
Plus, happily, the mesmerizing performances of Brian d'Arcy James, who looks more like Richard Nixon than Tony Curtis as Falco, and, even stronger, John Lithgow as the Machiavellian Hunsecker.
There was a time during the middle of the last century when a small group of newspaper and radio gossip columnists, pack-led by Winchell, did have a kind of life-or-death power over the careers of many in entertainment and even in politics.
Villains can make a cheerful dramatic diversion, but it must be admitted that Hunsecker, with his love of manipulative power - and possibly incestuous, certainly unhealthy, regard for his younger sister, whom he brought up - has crawled from beneath a singularly unsavory, if glittering, rock. And his fawning favorite, Sidney, is just despicable.
You are not going to root for these guys - and you might find it difficult to root for the sister (a colorless Kelli O'Hara), her piano-playing lover (a colorless Jack Noseworthy) or even Rita, Falco's hard-luck girlfriend (a sprightly and medium hard-bitten Stacey Logan).
You have to root for the show itself. And it's very much worth it.
Guare has retained some of the best and bitterest quips from the movie script - such as, "You're dead, go and get yourself buried" - and added many acerbic zingers of his own.
Hytner is a very fluid director of musicals, and here, in obviously close collaboration with Broadway tyro Wheeldon (who learned much from his New York City Ballet apprenticeship with Jerome Robbins), puts together a show that flows like an ornamental fountain.
It also owes a great deal of its essential style to Crowley's designs, which seem almost a homage to the blue/black Gotham created in the original "Batman" movie by designer Anton Furst, and the lighting of Natasha Katz.
But at the corrupted heart of "Sweet Smell" are the duo of Lithgow, who is magnificent in his calm-faced, mad-eyed arrogance, and the slimy little James, convincing you that, yes, some guys would sell their mother's teeth for a buck.
It wasn't a pleasant movie and it's not a pleasant musical - but the movie has become a classic as a portrait of part of America at a certain time, and the musical one day could well be regarded in that same dour light.
Listen, all ye sinners, to the Lorelei call of Manhattan after dark, a world of glitter and grime, of illicit, electrified promise. Harken to the whispers of the famous and the infamous as they do the dirty things they do when the lights are low. Hear the cries of the . . . zzzzzzzz.
Sorry. Did I nod off there? It's true that ''Sweet Smell of Success,'' the new musical at the Martin Beck Theater, works really hard at conveying that titillating, biblical sense of nocturnal New York as a hive of glamorous nastiness.
But somehow this siren song insists on translating itself into the rhythms of a sideshow hypnotist, the kind who keeps saying, ''Your eyelids are getting heavy . . .'' The bitch-goddess Success may be the presiding deity of record in the production that opened last night. But its real spirit-in-residence is Morpheus, the yawning god of dream time.
Now how on earth did this narcotic concoction come to be? Broken down, the elements of ''Sweet Smell of Success'' would seem to be a recipe for a Benzedrine cocktail, served straight up.
There is, to begin with, the 1957 movie that is the basis for the show (along with Ernest Lehman's novella), one of the most vital portraits ever of New York as a shark pool. Notoriously inspired by the career of Walter Winchell, the terrifyingly powerful gossip columnist, the film transcended box-office failure to become a cult favorite for its jittery, high-adrenaline style and piquant dialogue (by Mr. Lehman and Clifford Odets).
The musical's book comes from the gold-plated pen of no less a dramatist than John Guare, the author of ''Six Degrees of Separation'' and a man with an insider's ear for power-set tittle-tattle. The production has been staged by Nicholas Hytner, who spectacularly rejuvenated ''Carousel'' eight years ago and was recently tapped as the artistic director of the Royal National Theater in London.
Add to this a score by Marvin Hamlisch, the Oscar-winning composer (''The Way We Were,'' ''The Sting'') who wowed Broadway with his music for ''A Chorus Line''; dances by Christopher Wheeldon, the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet; and a set and costumes by Bob Crowley, a designer of breathtaking imagination. And, oh yes, two stars of no small talent: the veteran John Lithgow and the relative newcomer Brian d'Arcy James, in the roles played to iconographic perfection in the film by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
Yet as a team, these show-business eminences have wound up stripping the zip from a story that on screen throbbed with the intensity of urban push-and-pull and heavy-breathing ambition. The musical, which was overhauled after a lackluster tryout in Chicago, has built up the movie's moral message and slimmed down its smart-mouthed wit. Indeed, it often seems to be under the impression that it is delivering classical tragedy.
The comparison is not accidental. Mr. Crowley's set, which brings to mind the Gotham City of Tim Burton's ''Batman'' films, is an ominous curved cluster of skyscrapers that suggest concrete canyons as gladiators' rings. The members of the ensemble, representing assorted citizens of the night, have an irritating habit of encircling the principals and hissing admonitions, Greek chorus style: ''What you gonna do, Sidney?'' ''Do it, do it!'' Or ''Say goodbye to it all.'' (Craig Carnelia is the incantatory lyricist.)
Most of these words are addressed to Mr. James, who plays Sidney Falco (né Falconi), a hungry press agent who is taken up by the mighty J. J. Hunsecker (Mr. Lithgow), a Red-baiting, blackmailing newspaper columnist and broadcast personality. Far more than the film, the musical presents Sidney's initiation into Hunsecker's world as a Faustian fall from grace.
Unlike Mr. Curtis's Sidney, who was a tough, high-strung nail biter, Mr. James's version feels unformed and naïve, a tabula rasa on which dirty words can be scrawled. His pure choirboy tenor and open face suggest infinite malleability. This Sidney does not, in other words, have much character to call his own, although Mr. James belatedly acquires some sting in the second act.
Personality, with a capital P, would seem to be the province of Hunsecker, whom Lancaster played as a Titan carved out of ice. Mr. Lithgow's interpretation is more subtle, endowing Hunsecker with an amiable, avuncular surface.
This would be fine if you believed in the steely, monstrous egotism beneath. Yet when this Hunsecker turns nasty, the contrast is comic, not chilling. Mr. Lithgow, whose most memorable portraits have been of endearingly uncertain characters (as in ''M. Butterfly''), here wears evil authority like a clanking suit of armor. You can feel him itching to take it off.
As a consequence, dialogue that seemed cool and mordant on screen registers as phony and bombastic onstage. (For example, Hunsecker's oft-quoted putdown of Sidney: ''I'd hate to take a bite out of you; you're a cookie full of arsenic.'') And there's little of the vicious chemisty between the two men that the show begs for.
About the closest this production comes to that is a high-camp, operatic moment when Hunsecker makes Sidney take an oath of loyalty before a statue of the Virgin in St. Patrick's Cathedral. (That, at least, is kind of fun; too bad there aren't more like it.)
Perhaps by way of compensation, new emphasis is given to the subplot involving Hunsecker's obsessively adored younger sister, Susan (Kelli O'Hara, who makes the best of a bad lot), and her secret love affair with Dallas (Jack Noseworthy), a jazz pianist with moral backbone. Together, they sing register-taxing duets bizarrely reminiscent of ''Miss Saigon.'' On his own, the miscast Mr. Noseworthy, who could easily be a Backstreet Boy, gets to make like Hoagy Carmichael.
You can feel Mr. Hamlisch struggling to create a sense of urban anxiety and film noir portentousness, with the requisite sinister strings and blistering brass. But it all starts to sound like one sustained admonitory melody.
The talented Mr. Wheeldon, in his Broadway debut, is also obviously aiming for a symphony-of-the-city effect, with mixed variations of period dance styles for the club-hopping sequences and a misfired Fosse-esque vaudeville routine for Hunsecker. But what one remembers most, unfortunately, is the members of the chorus leaning in and out (and in and out and in and out) in their mystic circle as they repeat gossip and prophesy doom.
Mr. Guare's principal contributions appear to have been to add as many real-life famous names as possible, from Marilyn Monroe to J. Edgar Hoover, and to inject a note of feminist uplift at the ending, as embodied by the self-liberating Susan and the vengeful Rita (Stacey Logan), the cigarette girl done wrong by Sidney.
If you're going to enjoy ''Sweet Smell'' at all, you should probably have never seen the movie. But even on its own terms, this musical seems less compellingly dark than simply muddy.
''Welcome to the night,'' the chorus chants seductively in the first act. Despite the vastness of the talents that have gone into creating this nocturnal landscape, you're likely to find yourself counting the moments until dawn.
Broadway's latest trip to the movies presents one of its toughest translation assignments: How to turn a cinematic martini with a strychnine twist into a palatable stage entertainment to satisfy the masses that multimillion-dollar musicals must attract. Can the machinations of J.J. Hunsecker, the nasty nightlife columnist played with such smoldering economy by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 picture, be made to fill a Broadway stage? Can the groveling of desperate press agent Sidney Falco be set to music?
The answer is yes -- anything is possible in showbiz, as Hunsecker would be the first to admit -- but the results aren't likely to vie for pride of place with the movie in the hard-bitten hearts of its many admirers, or to draw flocks of the uninitiated either. Broadway's "Sweet Smell" is an accomplished production that has been assembled with diligence and care by a talented group of collaborators: composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, book writer John Guare, riffing on Ernest Lehman's original material, and director Nicholas Hytner. It has some tartly flavorful passages -- a zesty, engaging opening sequence, a performance by Brian d'Arcy James oozing an oily desperation that's often riveting.
But this attempt to fashion a theatrical "cookie filled with arsenic," to borrow a Hunsecker-ism, stints on both the cookie and the arsenic. It's dark, sure, but it doesn't transmit the thrill of being bad the way, say, "Chicago" does, and in pure entertainment terms it doesn't deliver enough crunch to offset its sour flavor.
The show opens with a tangy film-noir fanfare from the orchestra, and the curtain rises to reveal John Lithgow's grimly sardonic J.J. dictating his latest column to his secretary. The show's attempt to marry the dictates of musical comedy with the sordid subject at hand is signaled right from the start, as J.J. dispenses items in the rhythmic rat-a-tat of a Catskills comic: "Dean Martin confessing at the Stork Club that he sees a psychiatrist once a week to help him stop drinking. It's working. Every Tuesday from 3 to 4, he stops drinking."
The chorus stalks through smoky shafts of light, singing a dark, catchy anthem extolling J.J.'s power. They're joined by d'Arcy James' jittery Sidney Falcone (J.J. will get him to drop the last syllable), desperate to get a mention of his client the Voodoo Club, and together they spell out in some of the show's sharpest lyrics and dialogue the rules of the game: "A press agent works for a client/A press agent like to eat/The client says, 'Get me in J.J.'/The press agent feels the heat." The sinister system of the days when columnists like Walter Winchell, on whom Hunsecker was famously based, manipulated the minds and hearts of millions is elucidated vividly in an integrated blend of scene and song staged with propulsive precision by director Hytner and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
So far, so good, and Bob Crowley's set, which presents an imposing, jagged Manhattan skyline hovering above the heads of the performers, wittily presents the musical's milieu as the land of bottom-feeders, a subterranean place where human rats scurry about looking for cover and comfort. Natasha Katz's lighting bathes the stage in neon nightclub colors, dark pink and purple and blue, that accentuates the show's nocturnal mood.
The key plot elements of the movie are here: J.J's obsessive, nearly incestuous affection for his half-sister Susan (Kelli O'Hara), and his manipulation of the ambitious Falco to break up the relationship between Susan and a nightclub piano player named Dallas (Jack Noseworthy, looking appropriately Chet Baker-ish). But while the movie packed these dark doings into a tense period of less than two days, Guare & Co. have stretched them out, providing additional scenes, mostly in the first act, giving background to the story and its players.
It's easy enough to understand the decision to let the story breathe and delve a little deeper into the psyches of the show's four principal characters, but the results sap some of the caffeinated, inexorable flow of Lehman's tale, and these extra forays, mostly musical, are not exactly revelatory.
Susan and Dallas get much more stage time than their filmic equivalents did, but Hamlisch's love songs for the twosome are thoroughly bland (and Carnelia's lyrics, deft and often savvy elsewhere, grow cabaret-song generic on Dallas' solo "I Cannot Hear the City," for example). The placidly pretty O'Hara and Noseworthy have excellent voices, but the tension of the tale is somewhat mitigated by our utter lack of interest in whether these two will or will not live happily ever after.
Hamlisch, whose generally sunny song catalog hardly makes him a natural for this material, also has come up with a pretty dreary humanizing number for J.J., a lilting, nostalgic ode to sis that's like an aural Hallmark card ("For Susan," it is aptly called). Lithgow is not a natural singer, but he does his best here and in his climactic but derivative-feeling vaudeville turn ("Don't Look Now"). Yet as proficient as his performance is, the material doesn't allow for the kind of malign magnetism that you want from the character and the show.
In fact, most of the evening's magnetism emanates from d'Arcy James, a terrific musical performer who has a few soaring solos announcing his desperate desire for and, later, exultation in the kind of power J.J. wields. That we never quite understand where this drive comes from is hardly the actor's fault: He performs with an arresting intensity, and it's fascinating to watch his Sidney ricochet woozily from being a wrinkled suit in search of a man to a smooth operator and back again.
But the score lets everyone down at one point or another. Songs tend to be more competent than exciting, and come in one of a few varieties: the pretty ballads for the lovers, those soaring solos, several aggressive choral numbers. The best of these are the opening salvo, "The Column," and the rousing act-two highlight "Dirt," but it says something about the show that these could almost be interchangeable.
Indeed, for all the swirling complexity of Hytner's staging, aided by the stylish choreography of Wheeldon, a brilliant young ballet choreographer here making a fine Broadway debut, there's a plodding monotony to the way the story unfolds here. The insistent presence of the chorus, used as a kind of fifth principal character -- filling the nightclubs, stalking the streets, busting in on private reveries to comment sardonically on Sidney's rise and fall -- begins to seem a desperate disguise for the show's lack of real vitality and momentum. (And after a while their omnipresence begins to grate: Don't these people have a subway to catch?)
In recent years, musical-makers have struggled to find the right formula for turning dark material into shining theater -- witness "Parade," "Marie Christine" and "Thou Shalt Not," or the two "Wild Party" projects from two seasons back. "Sweet Smell" is just the latest show to come a cropper trying to make a bleak story bloom happily onstage. Its grimness leaves you with a bit of an emotional hangover, but it doesn't take long to realize you didn't have much fun earning it.